Mahipati is reputed to be a highly reliable biographer of Tukaram. His Bhakta Vijaya and Bhakta Lilamrita contain the story of the saint’s life.
According to Mahipati, Tukaram Bolhoba Ambile, to give the saint his full name, was born in 1608 in Dehu on the right bank of the Indrayani River in present-day Maharashtra. Other sources mention different years for the saint’s birth: 1568, 1577, 1588, while Marathi authorities maintain it was 1598. A temple dedicated to Tukaram stands where his house had once stood. The family was known for its piety. Tukaram’s parents were great devotees of Vithal. For forty years both of them used to visit Pandharpur in the months of Ashadh (June- July) and Kartik (October-November). The father, who managed the family business, never believed in making money through dishonest deals. Despite being a very good businessman, he was honest to his finger tips.
It is said that when Tukaram was born there was an incredible lustre on his face, which dazzled his mother’s eyes. She took her newborn son and placed him at the feet of Panduranga. Legend has it, following a divine revelation, she named the child Tukaram.
Tukaram was the second of three sons, the other two being Savaji and Kanhoba. At the time of Tukaram’s birth his normally religious mother became much more so and showed signs of extreme renunciation. It was to be so as she was to deliver a great bhakta. It is well said that coming events cast their shadow. She would not speak to anyone and showed great indifference to day-to-day affairs. But as the saint grew up he showed a strong inclination towards religion; a strong sign that he had been chosen by Panduranga himself. The saint inherited this trait from his mother in full measure.
As a child, Tukaram was fond of games. He had several playmates. Even in his abhangas he wrote a lot about Krishna’s childhood lilas. As he grew up the seeds of bhakti for Hari, sown by his parents, took root and flourished. A stage came when he became totally absorbed in Krishna. This remained so till the end.
He cared little for birth status and caste. He brushed aside distinctions based on them. He recognized only one caste – that of the devotees of Hari.
He talks of his utter dependence on Hari in these words:
“As the stream to fishes thou,
As is to the calf the cow,
To a faithful wife how dear
Tidings of her Lord to hear!
How a miser’s heart is set
On the wealth he hopes to get!
Such, says Tuka, such am I!
But for thee, I’d surely die.”
Tukaram entered business in 1621, at the age of 13, when his elder brother Savji expressed his inability as he was interested more in the spiritual world.
Like other members of the family, he did not consider business to be a means of making money by hook or by crook. In fact, Tukaram ran the business like a sarvodaya enterprise where the buyer could take whatever he wanted, sometimes even without paying for it!
Tukaram says that as he followed the profession of a merchant it might create the impression that he is a vaishya. It is not so. He further says about birth that that family is pure and that country is sacred where Hari’s servants are born.
In one of his compositions, Tukaram says:
“Between the low and lofty, God knows no difference.
Still to the faithful He shows All His glory.”
The business prospered for a few years, then troubles followed. Even then he did not give up his honest ways. His faith in Hari was as steadfast as ever. He laughed away the taunts of other businessmen and well-meaning friends: “Look what your Hari has done. This is what happens in placing too much faith in Hari.” He met with failure in everything he undertook. Despite their taunts others were convinced of Tukaram’s goodness and helped him with money. But the new ventures turned out to be no better than the previous ones. The family was reduced to dire straits. The following is a chronology of Tukaram’s woes: death of Tukaram’s parents in 1625 and elder brother, Savji, becomes a sannyasi; in 1629 his business fails; in the worst ever famine in 1630 his elder wife, Rukhma, dies of hunger along with his eldest son. These were landmarks in the saint’s life, not that they in any way affected his spiritual life. If anything, these tragedies only reinforced his faith in Panduranga.